Politics: 'Civil war!' How Trump’s words before the Capitol riot were amplified and echoed

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Calls for civil war intensified on the right-leaning social media platform Parler on Jan. 6 as Donald Trump spoke and urged his followers to march on the U.S. Capitol, a USA TODAY analysis shows.

Illustration © Javier Zarracina/USA TODAY Illustration

In the minute between 12:15 and 12:16 p.m., Trump told the crowd to head to the Capitol and that “you’ll never take back our country with weakness. ” One minute later, a Parler user wrote: “Time to fight. Civil war is upon us.” Another wrote: “We are going to have a civil war. Get ready!!”

On the ground, the sentiment was more tactical. A Parler video that captured Trump’s voice saying “show strength” captures one man in the crowd responding, “Invade the Capitol building.” “Let’s take the Capitol,” others in the crowd shouted in the video. “Take the Capitol right now!”

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During Trump’s speech, mentions of “civil war” on Parler surged to nearly four times the level the phrase was being shared previously. “Civil war” was used 40 times in the hour before 12:15 p.m., the approximate time Trump told the crowd they had to “show strength.” In the hour following his words, mentions of “civil war” jumped to 156.

Using a dictionary that researchers use to rate words for positivity or negativity, USA TODAY examined a trove of 80,146 Parler posts captured by analysts at the Social Media Analysis Toolkit before Parler went offline. The posts run from 9 a.m. when Trump supporters ramped up their Save America rally in Washington to 2:30 p.m. when the Capitol was under full siege.

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To assess what was driving changes in sentiment, the news organization also examined words and phrases that gained the most as a share of Parler traffic over time.

The analysis found a pronounced decline in the mood on Parler during Trump’s time on stage. The term “civil war” moved up as a share of all phrases in use, joining a volatile mix of words in use that day focusing on election fraud and Republican leaders considered disloyal to the cause.

Along with “President Trump,” “American people” and “God Bless,” “civil war” was among the top five most frequently mentioned phrases overall on Parler between 12:15 p.m. and 1:15 p.m., as some Trump followers were already assembling in front of the Capitol. Among the fastest rising phrases after 12:15 p.m., “civil war” made No.1 – followed by “voting machines,” “president elect,” and “Mitch McConnell.”

The analysis adds weight to reports quoting attorneys for riot suspects saying Trump’s speech inspired the attack on the Capitol. Such interpretations of Trump’s words are likely to be at the center of an impeachment trial of the president in the Senate that begins the week of Feb. 8.

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It’s impossible to see inside a social media user’s mind and know whether Trump’s speech prompted their postings, and much of the discussion on Parler was among people not physically at the event.

However, experts who study language, social media use and extremism see strong connections between the words of Trump, Parler users and people in the Washington mob that day.

"In those crucial moments, it appears that for many Parler users – including some who marched to the Capitol and participated in the rampage – vague hostility hardened into a call for violent action," Paul Barrett, deputy director of the NYU Stern Center for Business and Human Rights who studies social media, said in an email. "Trump helped transform an angry protest into a mob whose insurrection left five people dead."

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Trump supporters at the Save America rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021. © John Minchillo, AP Trump supporters at the Save America rally in Washington, D.C. on Jan. 6, 2021.

Parler did not respond to a request for comment on Friday. Trump's impeachment attorney Butch Bowers also did not respond and has since left the former president’s legal team.

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Sen. Rand Paul, Republican of Kentucky, described Trump's Jan. 6 remarks as political rhetoric, no more threatening than any impassioned speeches other politicians give to rally support. “Who hasn’t used the words ‘fight’ figuratively?,” he asked his colleagues, calling out Democratic senators who’d used strong language in the past. “And are we going to put every politician in jail? Are we going to impeach every politician who has used the words ‘fight’ figuratively in a speech?”

Eugene Volokh, a first amendment law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, said even if Trump could have foreseen that his words would move some to commit criminal acts, his speech would not be enough for a conviction in criminal court.

But James Wagstaffe, a first amendment lawyer who has taught constitutional law for three decades, took the opposite view. He pointed to phrases like, “If you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore.”

“It had the element of an incitable crowd and the ability to stop it,” Wagstaffe said of Trump’s speech. “Had he said, ‘Stay here, stay with me. We are going to get that vote, and we will watch it on TV together,’ there is every reason to believe that that crowd would have stayed there.”

Free speech alternative

Parler bills itself as a "free speech" alternative to Facebook and Twitter with much looser rules around what people can say on the service. John Matze and Jared Thomson started the platform in 2018 and named it after the French word “to speak.” Investors include conservative donor Rebekah Mercer and media personality Dan Bongino.

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As Facebook and Twitter cracked down on election-related falsehoods last year, pro-Trump Republicans and conservatives gravitated to Parler, where Donald Trump Jr., Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani held court.

Violent chatter on Parler before and after the Capitol attack has since prompted Amazon to stop hosting the service. Apple and Google also removed Parler from their app stores. Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, D-N.Y., has asked the FBI to probe Parler's role in the Jan. 6 attack. Parler's domain as of last week was registered with Epik, which also hosts right-leaning social media app Gab. A Russian firm DDos-Guard owns the IP address.

Peter Sheridan Dodds, who studies social media sentiment as co-director of the University of Vermont’s Computational Story Lab, said Trump’s actions in the past have been associated with dramatic swings in Twitter sentiment. But he said Parler is likely to show an even more direct connection because the audience is more uniformly pro-Trump.

“Parler is the engaged viewer,” said Dodds, who created the word sentiment scale USA TODAY used for its analysis. “They’re watching the channel directly.”

Parler claimed to have 15 million users in January – less than a tenth of Twitter’s average of 187 million.

Those users were riled up on the day of the riot.

USA TODAY’s text analysis drew on posts and comments from a panel of 4 million accounts that researchers with the Social Media Analysis Toolkit consider representative of the platform's overall tone.

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As the Save America rally speeches began in earnest near the Washington Monument around 9 a.m., user sentiment on Parler was registering more negative than the trend among Parler users over the previous four mornings.

Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Alabama, delivered a fiery speech to the rally-goers. “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass!" he shouted around 9:15 a.m.

The phrases “civil war” and “election fraud” were among those dragging Parler sentiment index downward as the rally progressed from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m., according to the analysis, which scored phrases using the average of each word's positivity rating. But these phrases weren’t in heavy circulation yet.

Then, at about 10:30 a.m., as speakers at the rally came and went, a wave of positivity briefly took hold on Parler.

USA TODAY’s analysis found the change was at least partly driven by a clumsily-worded prayer that drew 4,600 comments and was shared more than 450 times. The zone became flooded with words from the prayer that mostly rated high in positivity on UVM’s sentiment scale.

“Let us pray,” the prayer begins. “On January 6, 2021, Lord the American Patriots with President Trump your servant welcome you and are thankful that for a time like this has open our eyes to the many unruly and vain talkers and deceivers, who’s mouths must be stopped. Lord we pray victory for the American people… I love you America.”

Jeremy Blackburn, a professor of computer science at Binghamton University who studies Parler and other social media, said the prayer’s impact was meaningful.

“This uptick in sentiment, especially its seeming relationship to the prayer, can be interpreted as an uplifting rallying cry,” Blackburn said. “Considering that crusader imagery is well represented in online conspiracy theories like QAnon and violent militias, it makes sense to see it show up shortly before the Capitol was stormed.”

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The prayer remained in heavy circulation, keeping Parler sentiment high even as speakers at the Save America rally delivered confrontational rhetoric in the run-up to Trump’s arrival.

Trump’s son Donald Trump Jr. warned shortly before 10:30 a.m., "Friend or foe today, Republicans, you get to pick a side for the future of this party.” In an apparent reference to GOP primary challenges, the president’s son said: “If you're going to be the zero and not the hero, we're coming for you, and we're going to have a good time doing it.”

By the time Trump took the stage around noon, words of the prayer had started being displaced in popularity by less uplifting terms. The mood on Parler was shifting.

War words

A key moment seems to have come 16 minutes into the speech, at 12:16 p.m.

“You'll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong," Trump told his followers, shortly after telling them “we’re going to walk down to the Capitol.”

In the moments immediately after, posts on Parler turned to calls for violence. “Time to physically fight. Civil war,” wrote one user at 12:17 p.m. “Be men fight back and f___ them up. Civil war is upon us,” wrote another at 12:18 p.m. Still another wrote, “Time to fight. Civil war is upon us,” at 12:19 p.m.

The sentiment index on Parler dropped with increased use of negatively scored words like “war,” “remove,” “treason,” “cheated,” “corrupt” and “fight,” the USA TODAY analysis shows. In his speech, Trump used the word “fight” 20 times, “corrupt” 10 times and “cheat” three times.

Another, relatively neutral pair of words also rose in popularity as “civil war” became a hot phrase: “It’s time.”

What exactly Parler users meant by invoking the phrase “civil war” is difficult to know. 

Three members charged in the riot are members of the militia-style organization Oath Keepers, which frames its role as an armed resistance to tyranny similar to volunteers in the American Revolution, according to Sam Jackson’s 2020 book on the group. The three allegedly planned their part in the Capitol attack weeks in advance, then coordinated their movements by radio inside the building wearing helmets, reinforced vests and military-looking insignia.

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: On Jan. 6, 2021, people with Oath Keepers patches gathered outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington. © Manuel Balce Ceneta, AP On Jan. 6, 2021, people with Oath Keepers patches gathered outside the U.S. Capitol in Washington.

When Trump in 2019 quoted an ally predicting “a civil war like fracture” if he were removed through impeachment, Oath Keepers retweeted the message, adding, “We ARE on the verge of a HOT civil war. Like in 1859."

Some Parler users may have used the term “civil war” symbolically on Jan. 6. The short, internet-ready catchphrase lent itself to the moment, said Joshua Tucker, professor of politics and co-director of the Center for Social Media and Politics at New York University. It encompassed the ideologies of disparate groups attending the Jan. 6 rally, be it the Hawaiian shirt-clad “Boogaloo bois,” a loosely affiliated group of extremists who are preparing for a second civil war, or Trump supporters conjuring warlike imagery to express their anger over the election.

“It’s a hashtagable phrase that quickly spread and everyone quickly began to associate with,” Tucker said.

Vice News’ Tess Owen shared a photo on the day of the rally with three Trump supporters in identical black shirts reading, “MAGA CIVIL WAR JANUARY 6, 2021.”

Trump himself never used the words “civil war” in his speech Jan. 6. But he used other terms that painted supporters as the only force of good standing against evil.

The crowd on the lawn consisted of “patriots,” or “American patriots,” terms many people would associate with heroes of the Revolution. Trump described the more than 100 House Republicans who were expected to reject the electoral college vote for Biden as “warriors.” He said his supporters would “defend and preserve government of the people, by the people and for the people,” adapting the phrase Lincoln used in the Gettysburg Address.

At the end of his speech, around 1:10 p.m., Trump returned to the idea of fighting for the country and urged those assembled to walk to the Capitol.

“We fight like hell,” Trump said, “and if you don't fight like hell, you're not going to have a country anymore.” He continued, “So we are going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue – I love Pennsylvania Avenue – and we are going to the Capitol.”

These were Trump’s 19th and 20th uses of the word “fight” during the speech.

Hundreds of Trump supporters were already at the Capitol by that point. After Trump left, members of the crowd at the rally began to move in that direction.

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A Texas realtor named Jenna Ryan, charged in connection with entering the Capitol, told a local CBS affiliate, “I thought I was following my president. I thought I was following what we were called to do.” Others were under the same impression, according to court documents cited by The Washington Post.

“We the people will stand up and fight!” wrote one user on Parler at 1:10 p.m. “Have to fight fire with fire or do nothing and pay the consequences,” wrote another at 1:13 p.m. At 1:16 p.m., another Parler user wrote: “This country needs a civil war badly. Ones itching right now.”

The swing in average sentiment scores on Parler between 11:30 am. and 1:30 p.m. was dramatic. Had the drop occurred on a much larger platform like Twitter, it would have been the equivalent of about half the decline associated with a major mass shooting, said Dodds, the University of Vermont researcher who has measured fallout from other news events.

Republican in Name Only

While Trump’s exhortations to “fight” gave way to calls on Parler for “civil war,” much of the day’s talk on stage and online girded Trump supporters for war on fellow Republicans.

Election and voter fraud were common refrains. But equally prominent were attacks on Republicans viewed as betraying Trump not blocking the certification of electoral votes in Joe Biden’s favor.

“The Republican Party is dead !!!” wrote one user at 12:19 p.m., while Trump was still speaking. Another wrote at 12:50 p.m., “We need a new party: The Patriots or MAGA party. The Republican Party has gone belly up.”

Vice President Mike Pence and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, both of whom were seen as resisting Trump’s call for them to overturn the election, were subjected to special fury.

Trump invoked Pence’s name 10 times in his speech. “And Mike Pence is going to have to come through for us, and if he doesn’t, that will be a, a sad day for our country because you’re sworn to uphold our Constitution,” Trump said at 12:15 p.m.

“Mike Pence, I hope you’re going to stand up for the good of our Constitution and for the good of our country,” he said to applause at 12:51 p.m. “And if you’re not, I’m going to be very disappointed in you. I will tell you right now. I’m not hearing good stories.”

And at 1:04 p.m. Trump said: “So I hope Mike has the courage to do what he has to do. And I hope he doesn’t listen to the RINOs and the stupid people that he’s listening to,” using an acronym for “Republicans in Name Only.”

As Trump’s speech ended and his supporters moved towards the Capitol, the conversation online mirrored Trump’s disdain for Pence and other Republicans. But on Parler, the tone was more ominous.

“Pence is a traitor,” one user wrote at 1:00 p.m. “Patriots need to build gallows and start removing these rhinos like Mitch McConnell Mitt Romney and Royal Blunt to name a few,” wrote another at 1:07 p.m. “Traitor. Hang the bastard,” wrote another at 1:58 p.m. Mentions of Mike Pence went from a little more than 30 in the hour before Trump told supporters to “show strength” and said Pence “is going to have to come through for us – to about 90 in the hour afterward.

That rhetoric online matched actions on the ground. A makeshift gallows was erected at the Capitol.

Prosecutors have alleged that some who broke in were looking to “arrest” the politicians inside. 

Echo chamber

Once the riot was in full swing at the Capitol, roughly an hour after Trump left the rally stage, it was unclear how much of the Parler discussion came from users fueled by his speech and how much was driven by news footage of a mob on the attack. Regardless, some researchers said, at some point the voices online and in person started to feed one another.

“Let the civil war start today, let their blood run deep in the streets!!” wrote one user at 1:56 p.m.

“There is no political solution to this problem. Time to fight back,” another wrote at 1:58 p.m.

At 2:24 p.m.: “Better have a plan to take over the Capital Building Just storm it!!”

And at 2:27 p.m.: “Yup, time to storm every corrupt politician's home do a citizens arrest and burn their house down just for being so evil and corrupt…”

Ponnurangam Kumaraguru, a professor of computer science at Indraprastha Institute of Information Technology, Delhi, recently analyzed Parler messages from Jan. 6 and described Parler as an “echo chamber” that fed the crowd during the riot. It fits a pattern he’s seen increasingly in recent years.

“We are seeing a stronger relationship between social media content and the actual incidents on the ground,” he said.

Like USA TODAY’s analysis, Kumaraguru’s research identified an increase in frequency of words and phrases like “civil war,” “corrupt” and “fraud.”

a group of people standing in front of a crowd: Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo) © John Minchillo, AP Supporters loyal to President Donald Trump clash with authorities before successfully breaching the Capitol building during a riot on the grounds, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

To Leah Windsor, a research professor at the University of Memphis who studies the effect of Trump’s words on his followers, his speech on Jan. 6 was the culmination of a series of speeches meant to build up momentum in his followers, spurring them to action. The groundwork he had been laying came to a head that day.

“What was most fascinating to me about Trump’s language is besides the overt directives like, ‘We’re going to march down to the Capitol,’ and, ‘You have to fight like hell,’ is that in the week prior there was an undercurrent of momentum and forward-movement references in his speeches,” said Windsor.

Once he had called on his supporters to march to the Capitol, his work was in a sense done, she said. The violent rhetoric would then be picked up by his followers, visible in their shouts, on and off social media that day.

“He was building the momentum,” Windsor said. “And after the insurrection happened, there wasn’t a need for anything else.”

Contributing: Christal Hayes and David Jackson, USA TODAY. 

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Civil war!' How Trump’s words before the Capitol riot were amplified and echoed

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